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One of my biggest regrets as I prepare to graduate from Penn this spring has been that I never went abroad. I never studied in France, traveled through Europe, or learned a new language. I had my reasons for staying in West Philadelphia for my entire college career (I chose instead to devote my life to The Daily Pennsylvanian), but as friends left and returned from countries all
Over winter break, however, I got a small taste of a new culture, a new language, and a new country. Along with twelve other college students from the Philadelphia area, I left America on Christmas Dayheaded for a two-week stay in Israel. I had been there once beforealmost nine years ago, and barely remembered anything. It was time to go back.
The tour I chose from the many available was developed for Jewish college students interested in journalism and politics. Our itinerary included visits to all the major sites, meetings with Israeli journalists, discussions with representatives from the government and political interest groups, and an opportunity to watch a session of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. The group, which included five Penn students, immersed itself in the primary sources of any discussion about Israeli politicsthe land and the people. We not only stood at the Western Wall as visitors to a holy site; we also toured the tunnels that sparked such intense controversy last fall. We not only visited the Golan Heights and the Good Fence (a fence that makes up part of the border between Lebanon and Israel); we discussed their significance in the political realm.
The trip's coordinators and sponsors (Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, and the Israel Program Center) did not create a trip with any political agenda in mind. Our political views ran the gamut from left to right, and we were encouraged to express them honestly and openly. Beyond that, the people we met and the places we went to also allowed us to receive a variety of other viewpoints. One night we met with a Palestinian journalist. One day was devoted to touring several Israeli settlements in the West Bank and talking with the residents there. We watched a no-confidence vote on the Knesset floor and met with the Government Press Office and Israeli censor.
Originally, people cautioned me against going to Israel. It's unsafe, they said. It's a war zone. Why put yourself in that situation? Coming from West Philadelphia, I found myself with a different perspective. After all, when I signed up to go on the trip, a major campus-area crime wave had only just begun to dissipate. I felt safer walking down Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem late at night with three other college-age women than I do walking down Walnut Street in the same circumstances. Even after an Israeli Defense Forces soldier went on a shooting rampage in Hebron during our stay, and President Clinton cautioned American Jews to be careful in Israel, I still felt very comfortable and secure. Perhaps it was because I felt like I belonged there. Or perhaps Israeli security made me feel safe.
While the trip had its share of mishapsa strike at Ben Gurion Airport upon our arrival, a Tel Aviv tour that began too early on New Year's Day, and a bus breakdown in the middle of the holy city of Safedit was an incredible experience for all of us, no matter our preconceptions,backgrounds, or conclusions. Most of us left Israel having learned more, thought more, and understood more about the struggles and complexities of the Middle East peace process and the other issues Israel faces.
As students on college campuses, we can all easily seclude ourselves in our own small worlds. Leaving that environmenteven if it was for only two weeks allowed that world to widen. No matter how many newspapers you read, television programs you watch, or people you talk to, you must experience a situation firsthand to really understand it. I gained at least a glimpse of Israel from an "insider's" standpoint during those two weeks in December and January. And now I understand even more why people leave Penn for a semester to go abroad.
Copyright 1997 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 6/17/97